Sunday, March 30, 2008

Book Review: Tarnished Heisman

Major professional athletes, especially the ones who appear at the top of their sport in some fashion, frequently make a lot of money. Many of them also come from less advantaged families. There is, in American professional sports, a somewhat odd interval in these athletes' careers when they are seemingly destined for professional stardom yet unable to enjoy the benefits thereof. Tarnished Heisman by Don Yaeger and Jim Henry is about how Reggie Bush and his family decided that those rules governing the lack of ability to enjoy the benefits didn't apply to them.

Tarnished Heisman is, of course, not the first place the benefits flowing to Bush and his family have been discussed; Yahoo Sports' Jason Cole and Charles Robinson are the people I remember breaking all the stories. And that's the biggest problem with this book. It's a useful compendium of the available evidence that Bush and his family took a lot of money in benefits they weren't allowed to take under NCAA rules, but Yaeger and Henry tread little new ground. It's better documented than generally brief online news articles, with more at the book's website, but I didn't see any new revelations. Their most original contribution may be an interview with Charley Casserly, GM of the Houston Texans when they unexpectedly took Mario Williams #1 overall ahead of Bush. Casserly casts the decision as primarily a football one, but acknowledges that Bush's benefits problems, which surfaced shortly before the 06 draft, and his response thereto (hint: if the GM of the team who may be about to draft you #1 overall asks you to call him, don't make him wait 36 hours).

Problem #2: the vast majority of the evidence in the book is not about Reggie Bush himself, but his family. Reggie apparently demanded a car and after-market enhancements to the car; more documentation of this would have been nice. Also, Bush's stepfather admits to taking cash. From whom, and for what, if anything? The authors of the book don't discuss cash payments from their primary sources to Reggie, but do reference them coming from Bush's other connections. The big deal in the original Cole/Robinson article was a San Francisco trip for Bush's family to see USC play Cal. There's evidence (allegations, primarily) about a night out in San Diego. The behavior of Bush's family is in the same area of sketchiness as LeBron James' mother's Hummer, but that doesn't mean Reggie's behavior was as bad.

Problem #3: there's really not enough material for a full book. Tarnished Heisman clocks in at 241 pages, and is replete with multiple page transcriptions of conversations, whole chapters that don't reference the core allegations, timelines, etc. A tighter book could be half as long and have all the same substance. I know, it's probably harder to publish and sell a 120 page book, especially for a $26.00 list price. Still, this was a library rental, and I'd feel ripped off if I'd paid money for it.

Some other notes:
--Some of the problems that led to all this becoming public were just a matter of settling business expectations among potential partners. This is something I see all the time in that whole day job thing. And it's frequently to the benefit of one party to string the other party along. This isn't, or at least shouldn't be, a surprise. Plus, I'm often like to repeat the mantra that one should never attribute to incompetence that which is easily attributable to stupidity or, in this case, incompetence or lack of professional experience.
--One of the critiques about the accusations against Bush and his family is that one of the key accusers, Lloyd Lake is, shall we say, unsavory. Yes, he is, and clearly so, a point the authors admit and don't try to refute. Still, the good and the virtuous, or at least the not-unsavory, do not have a monopoly on truth. Lake's points need to be evaluated on their merits, not just on his reputation, and those merits seem to be relatively solid.

Bottom line: unless you're inordinately fascinated by the Reggie Bush scandal, this book isn't worth your time. There's just not enough substance, and no greater insight.

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